Growing Up with Games: the Bright Future of “Retro” Gaming

Duck Tales for NES

Like many of the people who’ve found their way into the video games industry, I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can recall. I have incredibly fond memories of playing Duck Tales on the NES at a friend’s house, staring at the black-on-green screen of my original Game Boy for endless hours on long car trips, and spending lazy summer afternoons exploring every nook and cranny of Super Mario World and Mega Man X.

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself turning back to these memories more and more often, largely because the entire industry seems to be doing the same thing. Hundreds of classic games have already been repurposed for XBLA, PSN, and WiiWare, and a number of new titles seem to be pulling their design inspirations directly from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Heck, both Mega Man 9 and 10 pull their graphics directly from that era.

I have no complaints about this trend, but I keep finding myself coming back to one question… where is this all coming from? Is it simply the result of shared nostalgia among an aging consumer base, or was there genuinely something better about games “back then?” I’m not sure I had a good answer to that question before last week, but a few of my conversations at GDC have provided some new insight into the matter. To put it simply, most of us just don’t have as much time to play games as we used to.

While there is undeniable value in titles with “hundreds of hours of gameplay” like Dragon Age: Origins and WoW, the average gamer in their 20’s and 30’s may not have more than a handful of hours each week to sit down and play. This generally leaves them with two options: play through “big” games in bite-sized chunks or look for smaller gaming experiences that fit their schedule. The growing popularity of Facebook gaming, an increasing focus on smaller downloadable titles, and the overwhelming success of “casual gaming” companies like PopCap says quite a bit about how many people are choosing the latter.

What’s not apparent at first glance is that these smaller gaming experiences are, in their own ways, just as compelling as their larger counterparts. They may not have 20-to-50-hour storylines and sandbox gameplay, but titles like Mega Man 9, Castle Crashers, Bejeweled, and Braid are focused, fun, challenging experiences that tap into the core of what it means to be a game. The reduction in scope also lets developers do some absolutely amazing things that wouldn’t work in a larger title, and that innovation has never been more apparent than it was at the Independent Games Festival during this year’s GDC.

MONACO: What's Yours is Mine
IGF Award Winner Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

The IGF booth was consistently the most packed, energetic, and exciting stop on the show floor, with lines of developers, press, and other industry folk in front of every demo station. From the unflinchingly retro difficulty of Super Meat Boy to the “why didn’t I think of that?!” thieving gameplay of Monaco and the atmospheric platforming of LIMBO, the IGF games were an unquestionable display of the entertainment that can still be drawn from retro-inspired gameplay.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Despite the humble beginnings of most of the IGF finalists, a number of them are headed to one of the three major consoles before the end of this year. Super Meat Boy is slated for release on WiiWare and XBLA, LIMBO is coming to XBLA this summer, Joe Danger is on its way to PSN, Shank is being published by EA for XBLA and PSN, and Shatter is already available for PSN. A number of the other titles were also being demoed with console controllers, so don’t be surprised if more IGF entries are added to that list before the year is out.

Does all this retro love mean that big-budget games are on their way out? Not in the slightest, especially considering the sales numbers of Modern Warfare 2. That said, as the gaming population continues to grow and age, their taste in games must necessarily continue grow and age with them. Ironically, this may cause more developers to look back to their own fond gaming memories for inspiration… and if that means we keep getting titles like the ones at this year’s IGF, we’re all in for a treat.